in loco playwright

rock2In the last week of January I went to California to attend the 8 Tens @ 8 Festival presented by the Santa Cruz Actors’ Theatre. I went because my playwright mentee, Keith Sanders, had a play in the festival. He could not attend himself because he is incarcerated in Rosharon, Texas.

Keith’s play is entitled Rock, Paper, Scissors. It was directed by Evan Hunt and featured the talents of Matt Clarke, Scott Kravitz, Adrian Miller and Gail Borkowski. SCAT Artistic Director Wilma Chandler corresponded with me and Keith throughout his application to the festival and the subsequent rehearsal period. And, as is always the case with established, successful festivals like the 8 Tens @ 8, there was a substantial team of actors, directors, designers, stage crew, and front of house people working together to make the whole event come together. I was extremely impressed with the entire experience!

The festival was held at the Center Street Theater in downtown Santa Cruz. It is part of the Santa Cruz Art Center, a lovely building with gallery spaces and small arts-oriented businesses in addition to the 89-seat performance space. The theatre itself has a raked auditorium which is cozily carpeted and the sight lines were perfect for the well-lit stage. Rock, Paper, Scissors is an intense and enigmatic short play that was quite unlike anything else in the festival lineup. Set in an execution chamber, Keith’s script specifically calls for an African American woman to represent a prisoner being prepped for execution, while three guards trade quips about religion and philosophies of responsibility. The set-up of the execution requires two guards to push one button each simultaneously, in an attempt to provide a kind of anonymity as to the identity of the actual executioner. But two of the three guards play Rock, Paper, Scissors during the course of the play, in an attempt to subvert the absurdity of the “anonymity” and just assign the job of execution to one person. This appears to be their routine, but it is unclear what the stakes are–will the winner get to kill the prisoner as his reward? Or is the prize a “get out of killing someone today” card? In a flurry of movement at the play’s climax, the winner turns out to be the one who pushes the buttons which execute the prisoner.

The ending of the play is ambiguous as written–do the guards want to win the game so they can be the one to commit the act of execution? Or are they playing to get out of the responsibility, but the “winner” changes his mind at the last minute? The director and cast invited me out for drinks after the show to discuss the script’s challenges and the discoveries they had made as they staged it. In exploring their back stories, the cast had come to a kind of consensus that the guards were essentially good people who did not want the responsibility of executing prisoners, and so had developed this game of chance to give someone an “out” every time they had this duty. But they interpreted the actions of the “winner” to mean that, at the last minute, he did not want the “loser” to have the execution on his conscience, so he pushed the loser out of the way and pushed the buttons himself. I was intrigued by their optimistic read on the script. I had thought the script had an essentially pessimistic view of the guards, in their callous treatment of the silent prisoner and their focus on the game. In my reading, the winner got exactly what he wanted–to be unambiguously responsible for the prisoner’s death. The “why” of his action is elusive, but it could be a lust for power, a desire to see guilty people punished, the rush of competition, a means of fighting boredom . . . it could even have its roots in the specific race of the prisoner.

The cast and director made some phenomenal choices that increased the disturbing power of the script. The intro music was Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks.” From the moment this track started in the dark scene-change interval between shows, the music announced that Rock, Paper, Scissors was probably not a meet-cute story or mild dramatic meditation about race-neutral (read “white”) themes. The cast also had some technical challenges with the set-up: Gail had to be strapped to a gurney held at an angle on a temporary platform, so this took time and careful attention to arrange safely. Evan and the actors decided to start the guard’s dialogue while they were still strapping Gail in so they could have full stage light and all the time they needed to assure that she was safe. Gail told me in an email after my trip that this flexibility came in handy during the final weekend when her straps got bound up and took a long time to arrange. It took so long, she was wondering if she should plan a jailbreak! I actually love watching actors work out this kind of problem, because that’s what people do all day long–fix snagged equipment or pick up things they’ve dropped. Watching people mentally and physically adjust to unexpected changes in the onstage environment is fascinating to me.

Gail did some research on cases of African American women who have been executed and learned that they sometimes sang hymns at the end. And so she added an element to her performance that was completely unexpected to me from Keith’s script: after the guards received the phone call instructing them to follow through on the execution, Gail, who had been completely silent throughout the play, began to sing. It was chilling and sad and massively magnified the tension in the theatre. In keeping with her singing, Evan chose for his outro music “I’m Free” by Milton Brunson and the Thompson Community Singers, a soulful track that sounded like a funeral dirge in this context. I don’t know for sure how everyone around me was feeling, but I’m pretty certain that this audience hadn’t expected to bear witness to a black woman being strapped to a gurney by white men and then hear her sing hymns of praise and hope in the moments before the white men killed her. This was just a ten-minute play, but the audacity of Keith’s writing and the courage of this cast to stage it as written made a huge impact on me.

I have been able to talk to Keith a bit on the phone about the show, although there was a problem with the phones cutting out and we kept getting interrupted. I wrote to him at more length about my response and about the ideas and questions of the cast. I’m waiting to hear if he has more to say about it. I know Keith is proud that his work was represented at the 8 Tens @ 8 Festival, and it was enormously rewarding for me to participate in his collaboration with the Santa Cruz Actors’ Theatre. Kudos and thanks to Wilma, Evan, Matt, Scott, Adrian and Gail for their time and talents!